Aspen Music Festival review: Augustin Hadelich energizes a familiar classic
July 24, 2018
A truly great classical musician can make a piece you might have heard 100 times before seem like you're experiencing it for the first time. Augustin Hadelich worked that magic with Mendelssohn's oft-played violin concerto Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent.
Quick tempos emphasized his signature technical precision, yet somehow he found space to let the music breathe. He shaped the violin line into a living, pulsing, amazingly fresh thing. It felt like a sleek race car whizzing over a well-known course. We found a surprise around every turn.
Conductor Christian Arming urged the Aspen Festival Orchestra into a fleet, deft performance that kept up with the soloist most of the way. The fast parts of the opening movement glided seamlessly into moments of sweetness without losing momentum. In the silvery song of the slow movement the violin floated easily over soft harmonies, Hadelich treading a fine line between sentiment and reticence. If the woodwinds had to scramble to keep up with Hadelich's swift articulation of the rondo theme, catch up they did. The finish felt like a wave crashing cinematically on the shore.
The encore, Paganini's Caprice No. 21, demanded a whole other dimension of technique. Hadelich made real music out of a piece meant merely to show off a soloist's chops.
"Mantra," a short but fascinating homage to Stravinsky by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, opened the concert, expanding upon two famous chords in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and making them into something entirely new and different.
Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote," a busy tone poem that never seems to quite get out of its own way, featured cellist Joshua Roman playing brilliantly in the title role.
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Over a weekend brimming with excellent string soloists, violist Lawrence Power and violinist James Ehnes each brought their A games to their assignments.
Power commanded his instrument and shaped the music's dimensions and subtleties with grace and consummate expressivity in a stunning performance of the Bartók Viola Concerto with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra on Friday. As a lead-in for this concerto he started with fearless work on Esa-Pekka Salonen's itchy "Pentatonic Étude," an unaccompanied meditation written for Power in 2007. Then the concerto begins with the viola playing solo for a few measures. When conductor Alexander Shelley brought in the orchestra, the segue was seamless — soloist and conductor clearly on the same page.
Their approach, sinewy but unprepossessing, did justice to Bartók's folk-infused work. Left unfinished at his death in 1945, the viola part complete but the orchestral music only sketched, it was completed by his student, Tibor Serly. Power and Shelley made it all feel fully integrated.
And then Power topped himself with an unforgettable encore, bringing quiet serenity, sensitivity and utmost soul to Ravel's spare setting of "Kaddish," the Jewish prayer that's a centerpiece of the High Holy Days and funerals. Before starting he surprised the orchestra's principal violist, Carla Maria Rodrigues, asking her to lead her section to intone a sustained G to underlie Power's exquisite performance. It added a beautiful layer of depth, perhaps the most emotionally touching encore in the history of this festival.
Shelley cuts an elegant figure as a conductor. He used dancer-like arm movements to draw vivid playing from the orchestra in Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances, the short opening work. Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major emerged in the second half with terrific presence, vital rhythms, impeccable balance and fine technical execution, even in the fleet scherzo and finale. Future visits from Shelley would be something to anticipate enthusiastically.
In Saturday afternoon's chamber music program in Harris Hall, Power's viola melded seamlessly with several festival stalwarts in a particularly fine Mozart String Quintet in D major. Violinist Bing Wang led the team, with violinist Cornelia Heard, violist James Dunham and cellist Eric Kim clearly enjoying the musical banter.
On Saturday night, violinist James Ehnes, with his regular pianist, Andrew Armstrong, applied technical precision and keen musical insight to the first four sonatas in a scheduled three-season exploration of these 10 Beethoven works for violin. If the first half No. 3 in E-flat major and No. 4 in A minor seemed correct but a bit bland, the two G major sonatas, No. 8 and No. 10, emerged with gold-standard performances.
The scampering figures that open No. 8 heralded an amazingly deft touch from both musicians, the rhythms taut and the expressiveness coming through easily. No. 10 danced, communicating a sense of intimacy with the audience.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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